Friday, December 31, 2010

Still Life with Robin: Many Happy Returns of the Season

by Peggy Robin

It’s that jolly time of year: Time to exchange all the holiday gifts that you got but didn’t want. If you saw the article in Monday’s Washington Post, you’ll know that has patented software that will alert you when someone is sending you a gift through Amazon and let you to decide even before the object is put in a shipping box whether you’d like to receive it, exchange it for something else, or just have Amazon put a credit in your account to use at your own convenience. Your gift-giver --called “Aunt Mildred” in the newspaper article-- will never know that you didn’t receive the fill-in-the-blank that she wanted you to have, and since you’ve been notified as to what that thing was, you'll be able to thank her effusively, as if you had actually unwrapped and oohed-and-ahhed over the original present. Unless she arrives for tea one afternoon and asks you point-blank, “Why aren’t you using the embroidered tea-cozy I sent you to keep the teapot warm?” she’ll never know you traded in that tea-cozy for downloads of your favorite rap artists.

Unless you’re a deep-down sentimentalist/traditionalist who would hang onto a giant wooden nutcracker in the shape of a beaver, even though you’re allergic to all nuts and can never, ever use it, rather than give your relative the slightest hint that the gift didn’t quite work out, you’ll view Amazon’s innovative pre-shipping return policy as a brand new reason for holiday cheer. Not only does it save you from having to box up and ship that three-foot beaver back at your own expense, but it also saves trees, as well as shipping costs and hassle to both the shipper and the customer. Anything that helps to cut down on the seasonal tsunami of Amazon boxes, in my mind, is a positive development for the planet.

However, the same day the Post article appeared, the comments came pouring in, and out of the first 100 that I read, 70 were negative, many of them brimming with outrage and horror at the very idea of a faster, easier way to reject a gift that someone took the time and trouble to select for some ingrate who can't appreciate the gesture. A few representative samples: “Another example of a greedy, materialistic society.” “Welcome to the miserable 21st Century.” “Tacky.” “This is totally ridiculous. So many things to say about how this undoes human connection in favor of corporate convenience and profit. It celebrates avoidance of communication. Talk to each other, people. It might make you closer to them, and – surprise – that’s the real gift.”

Well, mark me down with the ingrates. Clearly, these people have never had to haul a nine-pound cast-iron wok out of its box within a box, cope with thousands of styrofoam peanuts spilling out all over the floor, puzzle out whether it’s worthwhile to own a second wok (when your stainless steel one is both lighter and easier to maintain than the cast-iron one you just received) and after you conclude that you have neither use nor storage space for the wok, you pack it back up again, seal it, then unseal it after you discover that you forgot to remove the return documents from the inside of the carton, fill out the return form properly, put on the return label, reseal the box, and drive to the UPS place and pay $27 to send it back. You may love Aunt Mildred, who was thoughtful enough to recall that you like to cook Chinese food, but you won’t love her any less for failing to guess that you already have a perfectly good, well-seasoned wok. I say as long as your thank-you letter to Aunt Mildred is loving and appreciative, there’s nothing tacky about exchanging the present for something you can actually use. And all the better if Amazon’s new return program lets you skip over all the wasteful unpacking and repacking.

A number of those who commented negatively on the Post article remarked that they’ve given up present exchanges altogether, and that in their household everyone has agreed instead to buy presents for needy children or give a comparable amount to charity. That’s one way to skirt around all the problems of unwanted gifts, re-gifting etiquette, and all the fine print of store return/exchange policies. However, there was a definite note of self-righteousness, I thought, in at least a few of these posted entries. Fine, I have to think, you’ve found a solution that works for your family, but why do you still feel the need to sneer publicly at others who say that they enjoy giving, getting – and yes, exchanging some gifts? Must everyone follow the same self-denying path or be damned in the comments section of the Post?

So I see nothing wrong in Amazon’s discreet but practical program to help customers ward off wrongheaded presents and convert the giver’s generosity into something that pleases them. Isn’t that the point of gift-giving, really: to find something that will make the person smile and know you care? I don’t mind at all if Amazon helps me out in that regard, especially if it can be done without letting me ever find out that my first choice was not a winner. This may not be the traditional way it’s done, but new traditions need to start sometime, and with 2011 arriving tonight, I say, let the New Amazonian culture begin!

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